‘The Greasy Strangler’ Is Gross Because You’re Gross: Meet The Minds Behind 2016’s Most Shocking Movie

Is this the face of the Greasy Strangler?
Is this the face of the Greasy Strangler? Drafthouse Films

Opening midway through a walking disco tour guided by Big Ronnie and his son, Big Brayden, The Greasy Strangler strips the family naked, exposing its absurd, pocked genitals. Big Ronnie is a defiant old man, so overflowing with lecherousness, anger and carnal appetites that he stalks the streets as a grease-covered monstrosity by night. His son Big Brayden is a constant disappointment, but also Big Ronnie’s foundation — Brayden does the greasy cooking, even if it’s never greasy enough to please pa.

The relationship is cut to the bone when Brayden meets Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), a sweetheart with a sexual appetite Brayden is ill-equipped to handle (she’s Brayden in the streets, Ronnie in the sheets). Soon the father and son are torn apart over her. Meanwhile, the Greasy Strangler murders continue…

When speaking to the cast and crew of The Greasy Strangler my first question — how do you justify being so fucking disgusting? — already has one easy answer: The Greasy Strangler is disgusting just like the people watching it.

“It’s his fault,” Sky Elobar says, pointing to Greasy Strangler director and co-writer Jim Hosking. Elobar plays the sweethearted, balding Big Brayden but looks nothing like his character. Where Brayden is doughily naive and talks like a whimpering puppy, Elobar has a Lemmy mustache and interjects with emphatic “dudes.”

“This is probably a really annoying answer: I don’t really understand why people find it that disgusting,” Hosking says. “ I was speaking to a filmmaker last night, a friend of mine, after the screening. He makes some pretty weird films and he was saying to me that he’d never seen anything else this disturbing and disgusting. And he looked like he was kind of trying to process it. And I just found that surprising. I must be a lot weirder than I thought I was.”

Farting, grease chugging, eyeball popping, swearing, shrieking, penis waggling, wound fingering, penis washing and sex farting is just the beginning of the weirdness.

Wherever The Greasy Strangler screens (most recently at Sundance London) the disgusting events on-screen are echoed, silently (or near enough), by anatomical dramas playing out all over the theater. Big Brayden spoons grease on to his father’s plate, drowning sausage in lumpy sludge while we in the audience wipe our oily popcorn fingers on theater seats impregnated with dandruff and thousands of anonymous farts. As Janet mounts Big Brayden’s micropenis, tumescent dramas play out in dozens of theater-going pants. Stomachs ripple with gastroesophageal reflux, scorching throats with acid burps as neighboring butts pulse with engorged hemorrhoidal veins.

The Greasy Strangler turns over our own body issues again and again, tonguing them like open mouth sores. “It really freaks people,” producer Ant Timpson says. “It plays on subtle phobias people have. Plus, the explicit foul language, it’s like layer on layer on layer.”

Hosking zeroed in on sex as a possible point of audience discomfort. “Normally sex is sexy and really sort of forbidden, but this is like unsexy things, and not traditionally sexy people,” Hosking says before turning to Elobar, “Sorry.”

“It’s the kind of people you don’t see on-screen having sex very often. And for some reason that’s quite disturbing to people. But I don’t know, if they caught sight of themselves in the mirror while having sex maybe they’d never be able to eat again or fuck again?”

Strip The Greasy Strangler to just its penises and it’s easy to see how the movie disgusts by holding a funhouse mirror up to the audience, each burdened with their own irregular physiology. They’re exaggerated in both directions, the large one looks like a dangling naked mole rat. Its size is less impressive, more monstrous and unpleasantly animalian. It’s also the first on-screen penis that clarifies why the Greeks and Romans thought giant penises were so damn funny. Unsurprisingly, crafting it was an important early production hurdle.

“I was quite exacting about what they would look like,” Hosking says. “The guy who was sculpting the cock, he said I was the most difficult person he had worked with, even more than Mel Gibson. I don’t know what he worked with Mel Gibson on, but not cocks.”

The smaller dick, by contrast, was basically “the size of a vein.” Both are likely to elicit extreme reactions from audiences, whether laughter or aversion.

The wearer of the bigger prosthetic penis, Michael St. Michaels, plays Big Brayden’s father, the imperious Big Ronnie. Blessed with a leonine halo of white hair (a hairdresser by trade, he washes it with “a little bit of kerosene followed by mineral oil”), Michaels, unlike Elobar, looks exactly like his character. While the audience only has to watch a naked 70-year-old man wash his giant penis in car wash scrubbers or squirt farts at his son, Michaels lived it, experiencing firsthand how The Greasy Strangler asks us to laugh at our own decaying flesh.

“Just being me,” Michaels says when asked for the most uncomfortable part of making The Greasy Strangler. “At first I didn’t realize how degraded I’ve become. And then I realized well, hell, 10 years from now I’m going to wish I looked that good.”

Whereas Hosking argues The Greasy Strangler is first and foremost “a fucked up comedy,” Timpson is a little more willing to parse the strange mix of queasy discomfort, violence and childlike glee The Greasy Strangler exhibits.

“There’s this typical gross disgusting stuff that people have a hand on,” Timpson says to Hosking, “but you created this perfect storm of perversion that works within the film itself. People are just uncomfortable with you mixing a lot of elements at once.”

John Waters delivers perversion, Lucio Fulci gore, Todd Solondz misanthropy, but The Greasy Strangler squeezes out all three with childish glee. It’s a movie just as happy to have the characters bounce up and down chanting “hootie tootie disco cutie, hootie tootie disco cutie, hootie tootie disco cutie” as it is popping out a street vendor’s eyeballs and snacking on them. The viewing experience deserves its own drug-mixing slang for alternating between goofball tokes and frantic, wild-eyed lines of greasy coke. It’s whiplash cinema.

“He managed to make a soufflé of all those elements that people find uncomfortable singularly and put it into a tight jam that some people think is hysterical and some people find uncomfortable,” Timpson said. “And sometimes when people are uncomfortable about it they have a nervousness about it and laughter and that kind of works as well. It's just whether it's your jam or not.”

“And some people hate being taken out of their comfort zone, don't they?” Hosking says. “Anyone who is involved with this film, that's not how they feel. You have to want to be taken out of your comfort zone if you want to be involved with this film in any capacity.”

Comfort zones can just as easily apply to moviegoing as personal space, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some critics seem to have taken The Greasy Strangler as an almost personal affront.

“An exercise in juvenile scatology that’s almost awesomely pure in its numbing, repetitious determination to annoy. Somebody, somewhere out there, is likely to find these 93 minutes funny rather than watching-regurgitation-dry tedious,” Variety wrote, before damning Strangler with a dismissive “big-screen chances are remote.”

Perhaps because disgust is primal, like titillation, it becomes easy to wave away its masterful evocation as useless or unsophisticated. Michaels, Elobar, and De Razzo all perform vulnerable, embarrassing and perversely heartfelt moments for us, in performances that critics would universally herald as “brave” if they were in service of a more serious film. (Cinematographer Mårten Tedin, who stomached take after take of this madness, is also a hero in the final reckoning — he’s the Emmanuel Lubezki of dicks and asses.)

Hosking floated a theory progressing from Timpson’s take on audience discomfort: It’s exactly the diverse tones and shocks of The Greasy Strangler that make it a tough movie to evaluate or even determine its audience.

“If they’re very specific about what they look for in a film, in a genre film or whatever, and they have this purist sensibility that you get, like with music or anything, if you don't tick the right boxes it's kind of offensive or insulting to you,” Hosking said. “Whereas what I've found is, when we screened at Sundance — where it premiered — that the people who were coming up to me on the streets, who had seen the film, usually early 20s and often female, they just find it really really funny and they were asking me about the bloody penis and it’s like, yeah, the kind of people who would like this film are young people who are maybe not into genre films, but who just like stuff that's kind of crazy. I think there might be a really thriving audience for it out there, that's not the horror audience or the typical genre audience.”

“I think you nailed it,” Timpson said. “I think people who come into with expectations, especially, you have these certain type of horror fans who are very particular. This is not going to work for them. I think this is going to work best for people like my wife and stuff, people who don't go see any genre stuff, because this is an insane fucking experience and they want to talk about it outside the theater, ‘Oh my god, I saw this thing, It's crazy…’”

At first it sounds like an outlandish theory. Genre fans — horror movie gorehounds used to comedic violence in particular — seem like a natural fit for The Greasy Strangler. How could people who grew up laughing their way through Dead Alive not see the same in Janet, Ronnie, Brayden and Oinker? Yet Timpson’s theory looks a little more credible after reading the Bloody Disgusting review.

The venerable horror site’s write-up is a clear case of expectations defied, namely that Strangler didn’t fall more in line with the Troma horror mold.

“There’s a conundrum when you’re intentionally making a ‘bad movie.’ How bad do you make it before you’re no longer commenting on it and you’re just another offender? Troma are the masters of it but they know their tone,” writes reviewer Fred Topel, who ends with the assumption that the Hosking and his co-writer set out to make something that people wouldn’t like: “I think documenting my displeasure only reinforces what the filmmakers were going for, so I’m glad I could help.”

To be clear, plenty of reviewers (myself included) loved The Greasy Strangler (and there’s nothing about it that’s intentionally “bad”), but the extreme reactions point to a kink in the way we react to the weird and the different. We understand genre subversion and deconstruction easily enough, but have a lot more trouble locking down something too oily for most boxes.

After wrestling with various theories of audience disgust, The Greasy Strangler team concluded it comes down to audiences making their own judgments. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to define it. I’d rather just stick it in front of as many eyeballs as possible,” Timpson said. “You don’t eat the same meal every single day, you want something unusual once in a while.”

“It’s just to experience something different,” Hosking said. “You either get excited when you get to the cinema — you can't work out what you think about something or you can't pigeonhole it or whatever. It's like music, you hear something and you think 'fuck, that sounds really different' and some people go 'ooh, no, I don't like that.'”

“People who listen to Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa are not going to listen to Justin Bieber dude, it ain't going to happen,” Elobar said.

There’s no doubt The Greasy Strangler isn’t family friendly (even most of the cast had people they wouldn’t show it to. “I could never do that to them,” Michaels said of his traditional, Korean Christian in-laws), but it’s probably for more people than its festival reception has suggested. Sure, it’s disgusting, but how much grosser is the squishing, gurgling things happening inside your body right now? Or the sick and perverted thought you just pressed back down inside your gelatinous brain? And while The Greasy Strangler is most often compared to Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! it has new and beautiful things to show you as well.

There’s a quiet moment in the middle of The Greasy Strangler, as Big Ronnie dances on a spotlit street, where his shiny, penis-revealing disco suit takes on an aspect of kingliness. Humans at their most despicable and debased are noble creatures that shine out of the rubbish around them. By the movie’s end Ronnie and Brayden become so much more than their greasy, suburban lives, taking on a primal ferociousness that defies any attempt to dismiss The Greasy Strangler as a stunt or gross-out gag reel.

The Greasy Strangler isn’t for everyone, but it may be for you. “Why go to something where you know all the beats,” Timpson said. “Fuck, you know exactly what it's going to be, you know exactly how you're going to feel when you walk out. Don't you want to be 'I have no freaking idea where this thing is going to go. I feel like something has unhinged my mind and it's scary and exciting and I've got a little stiffy?’”

“On my word, unleash hell, in other words,” Elobar said.

“So look out Middle America,” Timpson said.

“We’re coming,” Elobar finished.

The Greasy Strangler will be out in theaters and available on VOD platforms Oct. 7.

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